A-League finals can often be decided by the unheralded and dangerous men of the competition – the solid performer who puts in a blinder or an act of individual brilliance that breaks the game open.
On Friday night the elimination final action begins with Melbourne Victory hosting Wellington Phoenix, while on Sunday evening it’s Adelaide United hosting Melbourne City.
The New Daily has looked at the team sheets and come up with four players who often fly under the radar, but could just be the key to success in the finals.
Melbourne Victory – Terry Antonis
Ola Toivonen and Keisuke Honda might be international marquees and Kosta Barbarouses may have 14 goals, but midfield maestro Terry Antonis looms as the key to Melbourne’s Victory’s dreams of repeating as A-League champion.
At the peak of his powers, Antonis serves as a lethal facilitator when Victory rush forward His instincts, willingness to take risks with his passing and understanding of positioning allow James Troisi, Barbarouses and Honda to run amok against opposing defences.
The 25-year-old has been primarily deployed on the left of Head Coach Kevin Muscat’s midfield diamond throughout the season, but, with Troisi set to miss at least the first week of the finals with a hamstring, may find himself deployed more centrally against the Phoenix on Friday night.
That Antonis will be lining up at all in the finals is a massive boost for Victory after his own injury scare on the the patchwork SCG surface during his side’s 2-1 loss to Sydney FC. Having notched 90 minutes against Western Sydney in round 27, Antonis should be fit to fuel Victory’s finals push.
Melbourne City – Shayon Harrison
City’s struggle to find the back of the net this season is no secret.
Riley McGree and Ritchie De Laet – a right back – shared the club’s Golden Boot this season with seven goals, their totals combined still trailing A-League Golden Boot winner Roy Krishna (18).
Socceroo striker Jamie Maclaren will no doubt shoulder the lion’s share of the attacking load, but it is 21-year-old Tottenham Hotspur loanee Shayon Harrison that can provide the X-Factor for the Bundoora based club.
Playing his first game for City in round 18, Harrison has found the back of the net four times since he grabbed his maiden A-League goal against Sydney FC in round 22 – including a brace against Central Coast in round 27.
Often City’s attacking has been predictable, stagnant and slow, but on that day Harrison breezed past Jacob Melling and Matthew Millar, before rounding Jem Karacan and placing a delicate shot just inside the far post under pressure from Jack Clisby.
It was the sort of individual brilliance City has consistently lacked since the departure of Daniel Arzani, and Harrison will need to produce similar sparkle throughout the finals if City is to stage an assault on the championship.
Wellington Phoenix – Filip Kurto
Roy Krishna might have set the league ablaze with his 18 goals and youngster Sarpreet Singh may have set tongues wagging with commanding midfield performances, but it is Kurto that has shown superhuman qualities for the Phoenix.
Living up to his status as a VISA marquee – a rare label for a goalkeeper in a league that has traditionally favoured foreign attackers – Kurto has demonstrated deft footwork, positioning and leadership.
His confident distribution and cat-like reflexes between the posts has also seen him become a social media darling thanks to his practice of mockingly diving after shots wide of the goal.
A perfect example of just what the 27-year-old can deliver came against Melbourne City in round 26, when the Polish custodian made a series of athletic saves to ensure that his side came away with all three points.
Coming up a high-powered Melbourne Victory lineup the ‘Nix will need Kurto to be on song if they are to progress in the finals.
Adelaide United – Nikola Mileusnic
Mileusnic made headlines in 2018 as one of the world’s fastest footballers. He’ll need all that speed to get his team moving in the finals.
It is often said ‘speed kills’ and against Melbourne City on Sunday night that blinding pace may just hold the key to Adelaide securing their first win over City in two years.
City’s game plan – called Joyceball by some after coach Warren Joyce – is centred around monopolising possession, getting men forward and knocking the ball about until the opponent suffers a defensive lapse that can be pounced upon.
However, when it breaks down it’s a style that leaves City liable to getting caught on the counter.
It’s a ropeadope strategy that Adelaide Head Coach Marko Kurz will likely adopt on Sunday, and the lightning-quick Mileusnic – who scored after just four minutes against Brisbane in round 27 – could well be at the centre of it.